Chinook is a nice little town somewhere in the American Northwest up by the Canadian border where it doesn't appear anything much untoward would ever happen. In fact it looks like the perfect place for an ex-cop to recover from the rigours of the job and start up a second career as a professional photographer.
It's not an easy living, there not being much call for artistic shots in the Ansel Adams mode from the locals, but his early retirement pension and the occasional sale to a tourist has allowed Thumps Dreadful Water to establish a life for himself including a circle of friends and a sort of relationship with the head of the local tribal council.
He's also still on the periphery of police work being utilized by the local sheriff to take photographs of any crime scenes where the service is required. There's a nice symmetry to that considering it was a crime scene photographer who taught Thumps everything he knows about cameras and the art of taking pictures. Viewing life through the lens of a camera isn’t a means of removing himself from the picture, more a matter of helping to frame things so he can keep a handle on them.
Everything is OK in an if it ain't broke don't fix it sort of way until the first body turns up at the new resort/condominium/casino complex that the local tribe has built. Thumps wouldn't have to have been any more involved than taking pictures if not for the problem that his part time girlfriend Claire's, who as tribal council head been instrumental in setting up the project, son turns into the major suspect in the case.
In a fit of adolescent pique, Stick Merchant, Claire's son, had decided that casinos and Natives don't mix and had headed up the protests against its construction. When he disappears after the body has been found he becomes the object of the sheriff's interest. When he's still missing and a second body turn's up, killed by the same weapon, the sheriff is becomes a lot more interested and Claire asks Thumps to go looking for her boy.
Dreadful Water Shows Up is Canadian author Thomas King's first foray into the field of crime fiction (he's using the name of Hartley GoodWeather for the series but since his real name is splashed all over the cover and Hartley is a poor second line credit its not much of a pen name) and the switch in genres hasn't caused him to stint at all in the application of his writing skills. All the elements that a fan has come to expect from a Thomas Kings novel are in full attendance and ensure this isn't just some run of the mill mystery story.
There are the wonderful characters in supporting roles who jump up and down on the page demanding their fair share of the spotlight and bring reality and dimension to Thumps' world. King's usual deft hand with description brings to life everything from the best greasy spoon breakfast in town, the natural vista's that are to be found in the foothills of the mountains, to the interior of luxury condominiums and swanky hotel rooms posing as crime scenes for murders.
If you've read his work before you'll be prepared for the tribal elder who people go to for advice and counselling not only having a wide screen television and a satellite dish, but a burial ground for trailer homes in his back forty and referring to computers as the "Nephews". It's all part of his attempts to de-mystify natives and remove the burden of spiritual saviours that have been dumped on their shoulders by too many Europeans.
"It's not hard once you understand how the Nephews think…They're just like little kids. They like to repeat everything you tell them… Some people are suspicious of computers because we didn't have them in the good old days…It's best to be up to date. Even in the old days the smartest Indians were the ones who were up to date." (Thomas King Dreadful Water Shows Up p184-185. Harper + Collins 2002)
Thomas King is a Cherokee and like most authors he writes about what he is, or the community he is, most familiar with. In his case that's the people of the foothills in the Rockies on both sides of the border who were living there when the settlers rolled into town. But these aren't "Native" books they are books with Natives as the lead characters that eat, go to the bathroom, have relationship problems, and worry about their children. Just like the rest of the world. Imagine that.
Sure his characters run into bigotry, express frustrations about the way governments treat them, but the former is a reality and the latter is the equivalent of Europeans complaining about taxes. Mostly they get on with being who they've been for centuries and working out ways to do that in the contemporary world. Sure they'd like better schools for their kids, a health care system that works, and a government that's not quite so willing to sell them down the rive to the highest corporate bidder, but that's not much different than the rest of us when you think about it.
But the real reason that so many of us keep coming back to Thomas King is his ability as a storyteller. It's hard to put into words what the difference between that and a novelist is, but the easiest way to know how well someone has succeeded in being a storyteller is to read the book aloud. If it sounds just as good aloud, if not better, than silent, you know for sure that you're dealing with somebody special.
A storyteller fills in all the bits and pieces that make up a life that may not have anything to with the "plot". He or she will look to be wandering off in a direction that has nothing to do with the matter at hand and it may not be until the end of the book that you appreciate the reason for it. Our lives don’t move along straight lines from point A to point B and neither do the lives of characters in a storyteller's book.
Thump's reasons for leaving the police force in Northern California aren't important to the plot, but they are to the story, because the story is just as much about Thumps and the other people in the book as it is the murders. That's the great thing about a story it gives you a lot to chew over and think about.
(Before anyone leaps down my throat and starts yelling cultural stereotype – Native storyteller or something along those lines let me be clear that I'm not implying Thomas King is a good storyteller because he is a Native Canadian, but that he is a good story teller. There are lots of good storytellers who aren't Natives, King just happens to be both)
Thomas King is one of those annoying people who are able to excel at what ever form of writing he chooses to attempt. Dreadful Water Shows Up is another in his long list of accomplishments as one of Canada's premier fiction writers. Do yourself a favour and pick up either this book or anyone of his others, sit back all comfortable like, and listen to a good story.
(Originally published August 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.